In Manhattan’s midsection, just a short stroll from Times Square and Pennsylvania Station, lies a no man’s land of unrealized potential.
Toward the western edge of 34th Street sits a McDonald’s drive-through with a lot full of parked taxicabs. Down 10th Avenue looms the northern end of the High Line, an elevated train trestle whose completion as a park remains as up in the air as the tracks themselves. Nearby, the centerpiece of the enormous Hudson Yards development is not yet under construction.
With the long-troubled Javits Convention Center, a few apartment buildings and a smattering of nondescript office blocks and vacant lots, the area remains a kind of Bermuda Triangle, bordering some of the city’s most valuable property and neighborhoods.
But that has not stopped one established restaurateur — Simon Oren, the impresario whose enterprises include Nice Matin, Sushi Samba and Five Napkin Burger — from betting that the potential will someday be realized. On Wednesday, he opened 404, a bright and airy brasserie set below a grim concrete behemoth of an office building on 10th Avenue at 33rd Street that houses several media companies, including The Daily News.
The restaurant, decorated in clean white subway tile and jewel-toned glass, includes a full-scale bakery to supply bread to Mr. Oren’s other restaurants and will host events for Javits Center gatherings. For the public, it serves breakfast and lunch and will eventually offer weekend brunch — though no dinner, just a happy hour at the bar until 7 p.m.
“Not too many people walk here in the evenings,” Mr. Oren said, “but during the day it is very busy, especially with this building.”
There are signs that Mr. Oren may be riding a gathering wave. Young renters have been lured here to Midtown’s outskirts by new apartment buildings, including an 835-unit colossus at 10th Avenue and 37th Street, and the 288-unit Ohm at 11th Avenue and 30th Street, which features a concert series in the lobby curated by the Knitting Factory.
Just a block or two to the east is more than six million square feet of office space, filled with workers needing to be fed.
Celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio and Mario Batali have already taken fine dining far west, to 10th Avenue, said Dan Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership, which helped bring Mr. Oren to the neighborhood. But their restaurants are nearly a mile to the south.
“That’s cool Chelsea,” Mr. Biederman said. “Simon’s being a groundbreaker here because 10th in the 30s has not been cool.”
Restaurants like 404, named for both its address on 10th Avenue and a North African bistro in Paris, may help change that, drawing more people to the area, offering an amenity to those already there now and increasing the value of the buildings that house them.
So in trying to improve the 34th Street corridor, the partnership has worked aggressively over the past five years to attract restaurants at least a notch or two above the likes of Tad’s steakhouse, a fixture on the street. The group has helped increase the number of full-service establishments from one in 1991 — Larry Forgione’s An American Place, on 32nd Street near Park Avenue — to 21 today.
“Once we took care of litter, graffiti and crime, which were everybody’s first concerns, then the next thing people suddenly realized was, hey, now that the neighborhood’s nice, I want to stay here, but there’s nowhere to eat,” Mr. Biederman said. “You can’t have a good office district without places to eat.”
If all goes according to plan, there will be even more people — eventually. Work on the hub of the Hudson Yards project, which promises to fill 26 acres above the West Side rail yards with offices, apartments, hotel rooms, stores and parkland, is unlikely to start before 2012. An extended No. 7 subway line is not scheduled to reach the convention center until the end of 2013.
The High Line park’s second section, which ends at 30th Street and 10th Avenue, is due to open in the spring. But the parks department does not yet own the last segment, which loops around the rail yards at the West Side Highway to 34th Street.
“You have seen hundreds and hundreds of apartments built over in that corridor recently,” said Robert A. Knakal, a principal at the real estate brokerage firm Massey Knakal, adding that restaurants and stores tend to follow residential development. “It’s something that’s going to evolve over the next 20 years.”
That something is currently at least two neighborhoods — West Chelsea and West Midtown — said Jeffrey E. Levine, who developed the Ohm.
West Chelsea, south of the rail yards, is already a reality, part of a long chain of vibrant neighborhoods full of nightlife, shopping and creative enterprises. West Midtown, north of the yards, is substantially different — still underdeveloped and disconnected from its surroundings.
“The West Side yards will metamorphose the entire West Side of Manhattan,” he said. “But we have to deal with what is, not what will be.”
Even in its not-quite-finished state, the area has its fans.
Jennifer Moore, 22, a college student who sells merchandise at Broadway shows, said she liked how close her apartment, at 37th Street and 10th Avenue, is to work, and how unpretentious it is compared with her old neighborhood on the Upper East Side.
“I didn’t enjoy walking around with the old ladies who were wearing Chanel suits,” she said as Liza, her fox terrier-chihuahua mix named after Liza Minnelli, pulled eagerly at her leash.
Glenn Rachlin, 24, a newcomer to the city who lives in an older apartment building on 34th Street, said he liked the neighborhood as it is, and was not sure how he would feel if it becomes more crowded.
“It’s not, like, crazy Midtown,” he said, gesturing toward the snarl of pedestrians and traffic near Eighth Avenue. “I like that it’s real off to the side. It’s a nice area for now.”